All eyes in the hall that housed the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw were on the Filipino delegate, Jeb Sano as he vowed to go on hunger strike until the 200 nations represented knocked their heads together and came up with “an emergency climate pathway”.
Soft-spoken and gentle, he said he meant no disrespect to the “kind hospitality” shown him by the Poles but he would starve in solidarity with his brother who had no food for three days as he searched through the bodies in his hometown devastated by Typhoon Haiyan.
“I agonise,” said Sano, “waiting for word of my relatives.”
The typhoon was unlike anything his country had ever experienced before, said Sano. It was unlike anything any country had ever experienced before. There is little doubt that this is because we are now living in a planet which has warmed to temperatures that history has never recorded before, and which has a concentration of carbon in its atmosphere greater than at any time in 800,000 years.
Even as he spoke Sano warned of “another storm brewing in the warm waters of the Pacific”. He urged the delegates to make Warsaw remembered forever as the place “we truly cared to stop this madness”. The people of the Philippines could not learn to live with running away from gigantic waves and collecting the dead bodies left in their wake.
Get out of your ivory towers if you deny climate change, he told the delegates, stand with the people now suffering the devastation on the islands of the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the Andes, the polar ice caps of the Arctic, the deltas of the Mekong, the Ganges, the Amazon and the Nile, the hills of Central America and the savannahs of Africa.
It was, he said, our “moral duty” to confront climate change. “Can humanity rise to solve this problem?” he asked, and then answered himself with spine-tingling words: “Mr President, I still believe we can.”
Sano came off his hunger strike at the weekend. He welcomed the deal done in the final session for a UN “loss and damage” mechanism to help developing countries deal with the impacts of climate change. The rich countries were careful not to admit liability for all the carbon they’ve pumped into the air since the industrial revolution and the necessary funding just isn’t in place. But it’s a start.
And there was a deal done in Warsaw last weekend which in the words of former climate advisor to Bill Clinton, Paul Bledsoe, brings the chances of a global deal to cut emissions to 50:50. Two hundred nations agreed to come back to Paris in 2015 and put on the table the “contributions” they will make to cutting their emissions. Alright, it would have been much better if there had been “commitments” rather than “contributions”. This was stymied by a group calling themselves the “like-minded group of developing countries” which are fossil fuel-rich or fossil fuel dependent, such as China, India, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Bolivia and Malaysia.
But if all the nations pledge in 2015 to cut emissions by 2020 they will make history. It won’t be Sano’s “emergency pathway” but it will be a threshold.
The EU will offer its “contribution” at the UN Climate Summit in New York next year, an expected 40% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels. Clear as mud. Let’s just say that it’s not the 50% or 60% reduction that science would conservatively suggest, but is still twice the target we have now.
Ireland will have her work cut out to reduce emissions so sharply. But it’s not going to be a problem. We have heard the words of Jeb Sano. We will stand with the people of the Philippines. We sent them missionaries. They sent us missionaries in the form of their wonderful nurses and kind childminders. We know the people of the Philippines and we love them. We Irish people are among the world’s leaders for our charity to developing nations, as UNICEF’s Peter Power reminded us from the Philippines the other day. I puffed up so much with pride I nearly spat out my breakfast.
But as for tackling climate change? Ah, hold on now. That’s an entirely different story. You see, we’ve had this recession. Now I know are thousands of children in the Philippines left with no mammy or daddy, but did you see the budgets we’ve had to suffer? We can hardly be expected to focus on cutting our emissions just when we’re starting to grow again. Can we? We can’t, says Minister Pat Rabbitte. He has decided to set the emissions target of our energy suppliers at just over a third of what the new European Energy Efficiency Directive requires.
They want us to save 1,462,000 gigawatts. We’re planning to save just 550. The explanation given on the Department of Energy’s website is this: “The Minister believes that the scale of ambition would impose too great a challenge and cost burden on the energy supply industry at this point.”
Is that what you meant by “truly caring to stop this madness”, Jeb Sano? No? In Ireland we are climate hypocrites, you see. How else can you explain the fact that the number of retro-fitting projects aimed at saving energy halved in the last three years? And the fact that Rabbitte has just pushed back new energy efficiency regulations for new buildings until far-off 2020? And the fact that we have broken the link between emissions and car tax, which had increased the energy efficiency of the national fleet by nearly a quarter?
WHY did we not build Metro North and give our capital city an inter-connected public transport system, which would act like a main artery to the rest of the country? Why are we primping ourselves for linking of the Luas lines while Istanbul unveils a metro between Europe and Asia?
Why do the media, including our national broadcaster, parade wind energy professionals like Barabbas and why do the baying crowds not understand they can’t have clean energy without pylons?
Why did our emissions go up for the first time last year after six years of decline, while our economy slithered along like a slug? Why has the hard-working and under-resourced environmental movement been kept off-side by the endless negotiation of a climate law, which will set no emissions target for 2030 but, at best, a target for 2050, when all the current decision makers will be dead?
We should be very, very ashamed of ourselves. The only correct time to act is now. Now is the time to stand with Jeb Sano and the “countless people” he reminds us are no longer able to speak for themselves because they have been murdered by the devastating consequences of our emissions. Now is the time to reverse the engine of our economy and put it on Sano’s “emergency pathway.”
As he asked in Warsaw, in words addressed to us today: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”